There are many ways to do the famous Ha Giang loop. You can go on an organized tour with a guide, ride your own bike, book a private van, take a local bus… In any of these ways, you can enjoy some of the most stunning views Vietnam has to offer. Moreover, the Ha Giang loop also allows you to learn about life and culture in the small agricultural villages scattered throughout the region. And of course, in Ha Giang you can also enjoy a wide variety of activities. Because this loop is not only about traveling along the routes that connect these villages and small towns!
One of the options for doing the Ha Giang loop is with a local guide. I did it with QT Motorbikes and Tours guide Nô and two fellow travelers. And believe me: this option can make your trip way more touching, rewarding and enriching. That’s why I chose this way to discover Ha Giang. Here are my 7 reasons to do the Ha Giang loop with a local guide:
1) Your local guide can take you to places you’d never arrive to by yourself
Ha Giang region is huge and just too beautiful. And just a few steps from the most famous stops along the Ha Giang loop there are hidden gems only locals know about.
The most adventurous among those who travel on their own may find one or two spots off the beaten track. But traveling with a local guide means accessing villages, shortcuts, alternative roads, trekking paths and local stalls or restaurants that you’d hardly find without their help.
In addition, if doing the Ha Giang loop with a local guide it’s much easier to adapt the route to your interests. And not only that. With a local guide it’s also more effortless to modify your original plans according to how you feel or what you want to do on any given day. Because local guides know the routes and the possible activities along the way perfectly. And trust me: with such landscapes and such challenging roads, the least you want to do at a stop is to pray that Google Maps is updated and your mobile phone has signal right there where you’re standing
2) It’s an ideal option if you aren’t an experienced biker, even if you do ride your own bike along the way
The route along the Ha Giang loop isn’t impossible for inexperienced drivers. But it is, in parts, very challenging.
If you have no experience riding a motorcycle, and the possibility of riding your own throughout the mountains looks scary and stupid in your mind, doing the Ha Giang loop with a local guide means killing two birds with one stone. Because your guide can obviously be your driver too. And while driving along the Ha Giang loop can be an achievement itself, you know: safety first. And let me tell you that having a driver has its benefits: you will enjoy the landscape like no rider will.
My suggestion is to actually ride only if you have enough experience on the motorcycle. Or if, like me, you don’t, but you’re self-confident and a very responsible rider as well. In my case, my extensive experience cycling in a huge and quite chaotic city meant knowing traffic laws and trusting my ability to react on the road. Also, I know that, when faced with an unexpected situation, I react quickly and coldly, and I’m not paralyzed by fear.
With this background, I still wouldn’t have felt safe on the road if driving alone. Therefore, riding behind my guide was an ideal solution. In addition to avoiding checking on the map every two minutes, the guide riding ahead of me defined my speed. And he was also the one in charge of quickly reacting if meeting a vehicle coming from the opposite direction in a curve. Also, I didn’t even have to think about how far the next stop was, or how late it was. And of course, we never got lost. Ideal, right?! This way, I was able to ride throughout the loop with no fear at all. The route was always challenging, but also enjoyable.
In short, either not to drive or not to lead the way, traveling with a local guide can make your loop less dangerous and way more enjoyable.
3) Your local guide will be your entrance door to local culture
Unless you’re a fluent Vietnamese language speaker, your contact with locals will be quite limited if traveling alone or with other foreigners. And Ha Giang province is not just a pretty face. 23 ethnic minority groups live here. And a local guide is an ideal option to learn a bit about their different cultures, traditions and livelihood.
I’m going to introduce a warning here: your guide will not be an anthropologist. Nor will he have a TEFL certificate. But the guides do live in the area, and many of them were born in one of the small villages up in the mountains. And that means a lot of knowledge.
Nô, the QT Motorbikes and Tours guide who was leading our tour, belongs to the H’mong community. Therefore, he spoke the native language of most of the people in the region. That allowed us particularly welcoming encounters on more than one occasion.
On the other hand, one of the highlights of our trip was to divert a few kilometers out of the loop to visit Nô’ village. Nothing spectacular: a set of humble houses with farm animals and small plantations. Then why was it one of the highlights of our trip? Well, because meeting Nô’s family meant meeting and communicating with locals in a cheerful and familiar context. And we immersed ourselves, for an hour or so, in the real daily life of a H’mong village.
Afterwards, we had to cancel one of the tourist stops we had planned because we were delayed there. Nobody cared, and we all agreed this visit was the highlight of the day. Also for Nô, of course, who took advantage of the loop to go greet his family.
4) You’ll try local food you’d never dared to if your guide didn’t promise it’s not dog meat
Being a vegetarian foodie is not easy when traveling. So many times I dreamt in Vietnam of entering a restaurant and randomly pointing at an item in the menu while looking the other way. Just like a superstar dropping the mic. But back to reality, I miss out trying so many dishes because I have no idea what they contain. Because no, I do not want to end up chewing dog meat by accident.
In Vietnam I was pleasantly surprised that they have tons of vegetarian dishes. It’s just a matter of knowing how to ask for them. And of course, that can be a bit tricky.
But traveling with a local guide, we could go one step further. Not only ordering food at restaurants was super easy. In addition, we stopped in stalls, both on the road and in the market, where we tried snacks we’d have never thought were vegetarians. Fried eggs, roasted corn and sweet potatoes, fried sweets, a very strange gelatinous drink made of soybeans… We tried so many delicious things all along!
And while this seems to be an interesting section for vegans and vegetarians only, don’t think ordering random stuff in a stand is that easy! Communication can be hard. And besides, yes, randomly pointing at an unknown item could end up with you eating delicious dog meat.
But there is more: in Mèo Vac we had lunch at a restaurant with a typical system of the area. You have to approach the sector where they have all the raw material (meat, vegetables and tofu), choose your favorite, explain what type of cooking you prefer, and finally sit to wait for it to be prepared. Vegetarian or not, finding this restaurant, understanding the system and communicating your request without speaking Vietnamese… can you imagine? I don’t have to add we ate a wide variety of food. And everything was delicious. Much better than the fried rice we’d have gotten on our own!
5) You’d be sharing a lifetime experience with a person from a different culture – and that can be inspiring!
Interacting with and learning from people from different cultures is usually the most enriching part of traveling. And by that I don’t mean telling your new dorm mate how long you’ve been traveling and what countries you’ve visited for the 23rd time. Not because your dorm mate isn’t interesting, but because you have, in principle, much in common with them.
Establishing peer-to-peer relationships with local people can be much more interesting than chatting with that other backpacker. Because that contact with the other is the one that teaches you about a different culture. And not only because of the information exchanged. Also for the dressing, the body language, the manners, the habits you can start recognizing after just a few minutes of conversation. And learning about another culture always means learning about one’s own and about oneself.
Finally, it’s not a revelation that a shared experience is much more memorable. Therefore, if you’re a brave solo traveler, doing the Ha Giang loop with a local guide is also an excellent opportunity to share chats, toasts and selfies with a Vietnamese friend.
6) You’d be contributing to young Vietnamese guys enjoying a decent and enriching job
In this remote area of North Vietnam, you can imagine job opportunities can be specially limited. And work conditions can be very harsh. In this context, riding bikes while teaching about the lands and the people they’re proud of seems like a dream. And it’s a pleasant and empowering job for young local guys indeed. What is more, it’s very helpful, as it allows them to improve their English skills and to develop their intercultural sensitivity.
For all this, when doing the Ha Giang loop with a local guide, you’ll be contributing to the local economy in general, and to a young person’s future in particular.
7) And most important: happy water & karaoke!
If choosing QT Motorbikes & Tours for your Ha Giang loop tour, you will sooner or later have an evening of “happy water”. Sounds like an euphemism for some type of alcoholic beverage? Of course it is! At 8pm you’ll probably be quite cheerful. The thing is once you accept the first cup of corn wine before dinner, they will constantly fill your little cup. And every time one single person in wherever you are feels like taking a sip, everyone will be invited to join the round. And everyone means EVERYONE.
If you’re lucky enough (or if you fight for it, like we did!), it will all end up with what is arguably THE embodiment of contemporary Vietnamese culture: karaoke. And sharing a karaoke room with enthusiastic Vietnamese karaoke singers, after the happy water session, is, believe me, priceless.
And yes, you can also sing your favorite Christina Aguilera song.